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Dr. Henry B. Waiters: Too much, too little, too tight

Part 3 of 3 in a series on Christian Modesty

Creating a list of approved and unapproved clothing requires understanding and applying God’s Word. Sometimes God provides specific Bible commands and then clearly states how they are to be applied. Sometimes He gives principles and expects His people to make prayerful, Spirit-led and Word-informed applications for themselves. Regarding clothing, God does the latter. Often, cultural values play a role in determining if specific kinds of apparel are proper, modest and discreet.

Scriptural principles are eternally true; cultural applications change. The Scriptures say that God commands you to dress properly and decently, which means dress in a manner consistent with God’s command to be holy even as God Himself is holy (I Peter 1:16). God requires you to dress modestly, which means do not push the limits of moral acceptability when it comes to clothing. You are to dress discreetly, meaning restrain fleshly passions when it comes to apparel. You must not tempt others to sin with your clothing. John Calvin said, “Everything in dress which is not in accordance with modesty and sobriety must be disapproved.” As believers indwelt by the Holy Spirit, God calls us to apply these “modest principles’ to our daily living.

Some say these non-applied principles are insufficient. The Bible is sufficient for all things pertaining to life and godliness and consistently deals with the issue of modest clothing on the level of principle. It does not provide us with a specific dress code. Apparently, the Holy Spirit deemed it not only adequate but best that God’s Word speak to clothing issues on the level of principle, so one should never say that God’s principles regarding modesty are insufficient. Pastors and teachers should suggest possible applications of these principles and help God’s people apply God’s Word to real-life situations.

God’s principles are perfect and morally binding, while our personal applications of those principles may be incorrect. God’s Word is infallible, but our applications of His Word are not. What follows is an attempt at practical guidance in this area, suggestions but not commandments on the level of “thus saith the Lord,” and should not be regarded as extra biblical rules, but rather as perceived applications of biblical principles.

Immodest clothing usually falls into the categories of too much, too little or too tight. Too much clothing refers to apparel that is extravagant, flamboyant or vainglorious. It is clothing that says, “Look st me! I want to be the center of attention!” It need not be skimpy, but it functions like a siren or spotlight: it causes the wear to stand out as a promoter of oneself. It is clothing that demands attention or comment. John Calvin, 500 years ago, diagnosed the root of this problem: “Luxury and immoderate expense in clothing arise from a desire to make a display either for the sake of pride or of departure from chastity.” Example of too much are the clothes worn by entertainment industry celebrities.

Clothing is too much when it presents a message that can be reasonably perceived as contrary to Christianity. Goth fashions, for instance, now appear in shopping malls and specialty shops. Goth clothing is often loose fitting and adequately covers the body, but it proclaims a message— dark, rebellious, morbid and obsessed with depression and death. Regardless of the wearer’s intentions, the clothing itself sends a message that is at odds with Christianity. Such clothing is too much.

Clothing that is tasteful but not eye-popping is the opposite of too much. Such apparel is not a means for displaying wealth or social status. Appropriate clothing does not make the wearer stand out in a crowd of modestly clothed people, either by overdressing or under dressing. It does send messages that are potentially harmful to the cause of Christ that misrepresents Christianity.

Too little clothing refers to clothing that fails to cover the wearer’s body. Simply put, it shows too much skin. For women, this includes unbuttoned blouses or plunging necklines that reveal cleavage. It also includes clothing that bares a woman’s shoulders, such as strapless dresses, spaghetti-strap dresses and halter tops. Many too-little tops today deliberately expose bare skin at a woman’s midriff and hips and they sometimes worn with too-little pants that ride low on the hips. Short shorts and short skirts are likewise too little when they reveal women’s thighs. The same for sheer blouses that reveal undergarments and the body’s outline. Ditto of women’s “exercise tops” that are little more than bras worn in public. One man, as he considered current trends in apparel, said, “Never in the history of fashion has so little material been raised so high to reveal so much that needs to be covered so badly.”

Some Christian women are surprised to discover that their bare shoulders or exposed thighs often trigger lust in men. Christian women think too highly of Christian men; they think men are immune to visually-triggered lust. No so. Sin means that even nice men can have nasty thoughts. If a Christian woman could read the minds of all the men as she walks into the sanctuary with bare shoulders or cleavage on display, she would never wear such clothing again. Most Christian men will not admit publicly that it takes very little skin to to tempt them. They say nothing, and women assume they are not lusting.

Men can wear too little as well. The most obvious example of too little? Bathing suits. A man would n ever walk through the shopping mall wearing only underwear, a and a woman would never go to a restaurant wearing only her undergarments. However, you routinely expose your bodies like this with skimpy bathing suits. There is no good reason for thinking that partial nudity is acceptable at the pool or beach.

Too tight refers to body-hugging clothing that clearly reveals the body’s contours. Maybe, in conservative churches today, this is the most common kind of immodestly. Even today’s non-skimpy and non-ostentatious clothing is often skintight, especially in the torso. Modestly is not simply covering flesh; it is concealing form.

Dresses can be too tight as well. Tight dresses can be just as scandalous as other kinds of clothing. If someone can look at your tight dress and clearly discern your body’s shape, the outline of your buttocks, the diameter of your thighs, and without much imagination tell what your body would look like unclothed, your clothes are too tight. This kind of too tight clothing is more than just attractive; it is a stumbling block. As for the questionable clothing that is neither clearly immodest nor clearly modest: recall the word (shamefacedness) in 1 Tim. 2:9 means a humble reluctance to trespass the boundaries of what is morally appropriate, a reluctance that prevents the believer from being bold when it comes to testing the limits of right behavior. — Robert G. Spinney.

Take heed of being Satan’s instrument in putting fire to the corruption of another. By the law, it is death for any willfully to set fire on his neighbor’s house; what then deserves they that set fire on the souls of mean and that no less than hell-fire? But is possible thou mayest do it unawares by a less matter than thou dreamest on. Perhaps in idle, light speech drops from thy mouth, and thou meanest no great hurt; but a gust of temptation may carry this spark into thy friend’s bosom and kindle a sad fire there. Wanton attire, perhaps (cleavage) and shoulders, which we will suppose thou wearest with a chaste heart and only because it is the fashion, yet may ensnare another’s eyes. Paul “would not eat meat while the world stood, if it made his brother of offence” (1 Cor. 8:13). And canst thou dote on a foolish dress and immodest fashion, where by many may offend, still to wear it? Thy should, then, if thy brother is more to be valued surely than an idle fashion of thy raiment.” — William Gurnall

Costly apparel is like a prancing steed; he who will follow it too closely may have his brains knocked out for his folly or rather his empty skull shattered, for the brains h ave probably gone long before … look into the Gospel wardrobe. Christ has provided complete apparel to clothe you, as well as complete armor to defend you; and he commands you to put on both. — Vincent Alsop.

One clear Bible command: Duet. 22:5: The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.

Dr. Waiters can be reached at 704-636-3369. 

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